National Poetry Month: Queen of the Paris Lesbians
Happy National Poetry Month! As a history nerd, I want to celebrate this month on Queerly Reads by drawing your attention to a lesbian poetry icon who has faded too much into obscurity. That woman is Natalie Clifford Barney, an American expat who lived from 1876 to 1972 and spent most of her life in Paris. There, she wrote poetry and plays, formed a salonthat held its fair share of famous guests (among them Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot), and had numerous love affairs, all with women.
Her life was fascinating, but perhaps my favorite thing about her story is her undying confidence in who she was. In her ultimately unpublished “Letters to a Woman I Have Known,” written right around the turn of the century, she wrote, “My queerness is not a vice, is not deliberate, and harms no one.” She continued to write openly about queer topics, becoming, according to Suzanne Rodriguez’s Wild Heart: A Life, the first woman to write openly about loving other women since Sappho. Let’s take a look at one of these poems, this one published in Poems and Poémesin 1920:
HOW WRITE THE BEAT OF LOVE (1920)
How write the beat of love, the very throb,
The rhythm of our veins' deep eloquence?
How fix that darkness-rending final sob,
That perfect swoon of each united sense.
The full-sailed rising of your body's sweep
—Adrift and safe on joy's last tidal wave—
Will toss you on the silver sands of sleep,
Forgetful of the ecstasy you gave.
Your breath ebbs restful as the falling tide:
A sea becalmed!... Lay me in valleyed part
Of breasts whose undulating crests subside—
Ah how they marked the high beats of your heart!
It’s a lovely poem. It has a nice rhythm, and the sea imagery is romantic. The picture she paints makes me think of Venus emerging from the seafoam, naked and beaming, an apt image for a poem about women having sex. But honestly, were it written by a man, I would not think so much of it. What makes it so interesting is its context. Less than 100 years before, the expert opinion of medical authorities was that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind.”
Granted, the times were a’changin, but still, this poem about female sexual desire, let alone about lesbian desire, would have been shocking. I love it because, like its author, it’s unapologetically queer and refuses to veil itself in ambiguity.
So there she is, Natalie Clifford Barney: an enchanting poet that somehow has been relegated to the footnotes of literary modernism classes. In researching for this little post, I found myself both captivated and inspired by this woman who, despite the consequences of her time, was uncompromisingly her rebellious, queer self. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little slice of history, and may we all go out into the world with a bit of Natalie’s shining confidence.
If you’re interested, you can read more about her here.